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Trash to treasure: Upcycled food ingredients offer a multi-billion-dollar opportunity to address food waste.

E. Bader
February 13, 2024

Companies like Atomo Coffee lead innovation in a $53 billion dollar market for food products with ingredients that reduce food waste and increase nutrition.

In the U.S., between 30-40% of food ends up in landfills. Much of the attention on this food waste is targeted to consumers, including campaigns for home composting, new composting appliances and services, and regulations, including mandatory composting for places like California and France that aim to prevent food waste in landfills.

These programs are important, but they also address food waste at the point of maximum resource intensity. In other words, by the time food is produced, processed, packaged, shipped, and prepared, it accumulates the environmental impact of all those activities by the time it arrives on your plate, then heads into the landfill as waste.

Globally, 13% of food waste occurs earlier in the “food chain,” between harvest and retail, which amounts to some 20 million tons of fruits and 80 million tons of vegetables annually. Globally, the retail-to-consumer food waste portion drops to 17%. Wealthier countries, such as the U.S., waste the most food at the point of consumption. Fruit and vegetable processing is a primary source of food waste at the manufacturing stage. This waste includes peels, pits, seeds, and trimmings.

Upcycling ingredients offers potential for profit and waste reduction.

From a lifecycle perspective, strategies that prevent food waste offer the most significant reduction in impact, rather than diverting food to composting over landfills. Strategies that reduce waste closer to the point of production also avoid the added footprint of further processing, packaging, shipping, retail, and home preparation. One such strategy is upcycling to reduce waste at the harvest-to-processing stage.

Most of us think about “upcycling” as reuse of discarded or used goods. For food manufacturers, upcycling is optimizing the use of ingredients, including imperfect produce, scraps, peels, pits, and byproducts. The strategy not only reduces waste, but it also offers a potential $2.7 billion profit for manufacturers and food industry solution providers, according to reFed. Estimates from the European Union identify an increase of 50 billion euros in market value for a “bioeconomy” that includes upcycling of food waste.

One of our favorite products that uses upcycled ingredients is Atomo Coffee. Atomo combines ingredients such as caffeine from tea and fruit extracts with upcycled date seed to make “beanless coffee.” Atomo uses molecular science to identify the exact compounds required to make a sustainable brew. The company reduces waste while future-proofing our morning caffeine addiction for the potential loss of coffee crops due to climate change.

Wasted food is also wasted nutrition.

It may be tempting to categorize “upcycled” ingredients as secondary options. But many of those peels and pits can be used to create better – and natural – food additives. In fact, “inedible” parts of fruits and vegetables, such as seeds and peels, frequently offer the richest sources of antioxidants and phytonutrients. This is true for date by-products like those used in Atomo Coffee, as well as other fruits and vegetables.

For example, banana peels are rich in phytonutrients including antioxidants, and contain all essential amino acids and vitamins, as well as protein and fiber. The peels have been used as traditional medicines, to treat burns and inflammation, due to their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial compounds. Banana peel flour adds structure and nutrients to breads and baked goods. The peels have even been used in meat products and meat alternatives.

Pomegranate and grape seed extracts offer potential as additives for food packaging given their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Mango peels can be made into preservatives. Watermelon seed flour is an ingredient in snack crackers. Uses for pits and peels include everything from a nutrition boost and natural colors to packaging and extending shelf life, to material for non-food products.

Seeds, pits, and peels have consumer appeal.

Consumer acceptance is one concern with food upcycling. Will people eat “waste?” As it turns out, consumers are excited about upcycling. Research firm Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, The Netherlands, identified that more than a third of consumers preferred upcycled products to products that did not have the same claims for sustainability and food waste reduction. That customer preference translated to 52% average annual growth over a four-year period for North American food and beverage launches that included an upcycling claim. A 2023 report by Allied Market Research, a North American research firm, valued the upcycled food market at $53.7 billion in 2021, and expects the market to reach $97 billion by 2031. With that kind of potential, food upcycling may be an opportunity too good to waste.



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